|Posted on January 2, 2015 at 8:50 AM|
SPRINGFIELD — The ride Monday from Greenfield south to Springfield on Amtrak's Vermonter was smooth and swift, said Alden Dreyer of Shelburne.
"The best Christmas present ever," Dreyer said as he waited in Springfield's Amtrak station for the ride back north to Greenfield. "I'm so happy to have the train in Greenfield again. We are tired of coming down to Springfield to catch the train at 4 in the morning."
Dreyer retired after 20 years with the old Boston & Maine Railroad, some of it spent directing rail traffic from the tower in Springfield. Now, he takes Amtrak trips all over the country.
"I did 20,000 miles last year," Dreyer said. "Highway travel is so aggravating with the traffic. Especially on Interstate 91. This service will be great for people."
On Monday, he and six friends made the trip from Greenfield to Springfield through the Knowledge Corridor and back to test out the new Vermonter for themselves. It was the first passenger service on the former Boston & Maine tracks along the Connecticut River since 1989, when deteriorating track conditions forced Amtrak to switch to a roundabout route through Palmer and Amherst.
Monday was the first passenger train to stop in Greenfield and Northampton since 1989. A stop in Holyoke, also not serviced since 1989, will be added in a few months, but the station there is not yet ready.
The Vermonter runs both ways each day from Washington, D.C., to St. Albans, Vermont. In between, it serves dozens of stops, including New Haven's Union Station, New York's Penn Station and Philadelphia's 30th Street Station in addition to its local stops in the Pioneer Valley.
Amtrak figures fares on a sliding scale based on rider demand.
•Northampton to New York Penn Station: $61 to $89
•Greenfield to Penn Station: $61 to $89
•Greenfield to Springfield: $16 to $24
The Vermonter was full both ways on Monday. Dreyer wasn't the only one who took it out of curiosity. The trip form Springfield to Northampton took about 40 minutes going 35 to 50 mph or so. North of Northampton, the trains reach 79 mph for a stretch in Hatfield and Whately.
Rail fans and people who photograph trains as a hobby lined up along the route on Monday.
Michael Kusek of Northampton and three friends took the southbound train, went for a beer at The Fort in Springfield, and took the train back.
"It was the first train in Northampton in more than 20 years," he said. "We had to take it. I do take the train all the time to New York City, and it will be great to get it in Northampton."
Others would have taken the Vermonter even if the route hadn't changed.
Hunter Cropsey, 21, of Longmeadow, a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, was headed back early from Christmas because of his job.
"I've tried other things, getting rides from friends. The train works out best for me," he said.
A lanky fellow, he finds buses don't have enough leg room.
Siyanda Stillwell, 18, of Boston, took his snowboard on the train. He left Boston a little after noon and was meeting friends in Brattleboro, Vermont, and from there they would go on to Stowe.
"I couldn't really figure out another way to get there," Stillwell said.
They were joined northbound by Joseph H. Boardman, president and CEO of Amtrak. Boardman's three cars, including the Amtrak presidential observation car, were attached to the regular five-car train.
Boardman said Amtrak is on the upswing, not just here in Springfield. Dec. 9, 10 and 11 were the busiest travel days in the history of Amtrak's Acela high-speed express service from Boston to Richmond, Virginia.
"Then you see the excitement here today," Boardman said. "It demonstrates the expanding demand for rail travel. People are looking to live without cars or at least to get away from their cars on their daily commutes."
Amtrak is also benefiting from increased highway congestion and the decision by the airlines to either curtail service or pull out of some markets.
But it takes money, Boardman said.
Returning the Vermonter to the Connecticut River Valley took a $120 million state and federal project. The federal stimulus program provided $73 million of the $120 million.
Vermont spent $53 million in state and federal money rehabbing the tracks in the Green Mountain State.
Connecticut is spending $450 million on rail improvements in that state.
Connecticut also plans to add more frequent service from Springfield to New Haven in 2016. Connecticut issued a request on Dec. 18 for potential train operators.
"I know that Connecticut is working on adding more service that would be more of a commuter nature," Boardman said. "We will see how that develops."
He had some insights, but few hard answers, concerning expanded rail service in the Pioneer Valley.
•Increased east-west service from Boston to Springfield and west to Albany would also take more money, Boardman said. It would also take the freight railroads that own the tracks agreeing to give up capacity for passenger trains. Those agreements are not always easy.
•Service to Montreal from Springfield requires political cooperation in Canada, Boardman said.
•Amtrak will adjust the Vermonter's timetable [pdf] to reflect a quicker trip, Boardman said. The train should be able to save a half-hour of travel time through Massachusetts each day.
•Track speeds are set by the track owners, in this case Pan Am Railways, a successor to the Boston and Maine.
•The $82 million rehabilitation of Springfield's Union Station, set to be completed in the fall of 2016, also bodes well for Amtrak. New, expanded stations mean more riders.
"You see how crowded it is here today," Boardman said. "A rehabbed Union Station will make more people feel comfortable choosing Amtrak. It will be more welcoming for people to access our system."